May 8, 2022

What’s in a Name?” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

My wife, Valerie, has been a student of American Sign Language and of Deaf culture since we were in college. Though you can’t see it when I say it, the letter “D” in “Deaf culture” is capitalized, in order to highlight the unique set of customs, art, literature, history and values of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languages (like ASL) as their primary means of communication.

Members of the Deaf community have their own unique name signs that are fundamentally different from the names on their birth certificates. For example, you can’t actually look up a name sign for my name, “Brent” — because I’m not a member of that community, there simply isn’t one; you’d just have to spell it out using individual letter signs.

There are all sorts of rules for coming up with a name sign in Deaf culture and one of those rules is that someone who is a non-native of the culture can’t simply invent their own sign; it is something that must be bestowed upon them by a native of the culture as a kind of gift. One of the greatest honors a non-native can receive within the Deaf community is their own name sign.

So when Val came home one night from her ASL class in Rhode Island having been presented with her very own name sign by her teacher, she was absolutely elated; and the name sign that her teacher gave to her is this [ ]. Here’s the meaning behind it.

The “V” shape of the fingers represents the first letter of her given name; the tap of the index finger on the temple symbolizes the glasses she wears; and the wave-like motion of the hand indicates that she is very friendly. 

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare famously wondered, “What’s in a name?” Well, in Deaf culture, the answer to that question would be, “A whole heck of a lot.” And the same can be said of today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

In the verses leading up to our story, we learn that Peter has been going “here and there among all the believers,” performing miracles in Jesus’ name in the town of Lydda. And then we jump about eleven miles over to the town of Joppa and right into the story of Tabitha, a woman who had lived a life “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” She’s dead, but is brought back to life by the healing power of Christ that is channelled through Peter.

Her name, like I said, is Tabitha. But what’s in a name? Sometimes, like I also said, a whole heck of a lot.

The first verse of the story reads as follows: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.” In the Bible, where female characters are often not even given one name, this particular woman gets two: Tabitha, in Aramaic, and Dorcas, in Greek (which both translate into English as “Gazelle”). The implication is that she mattered to more than one community of people, that she must be someone special.

In addition, Tabitha — or Dorcas, if you prefer — is referred to here as a “disciple” and this is the only time that a woman is given that title in the entire New Testament. Luke is a highly skilled writer who doesn’t do things either lightly or by accident, and so these small details that he includes in his stories are definitely worthy of our attention.

Dorcas — or Tabitha, if you prefer — was apparently well-known around Joppa for her charitable work  — she made clothing for the poor widows in town (in those days, if you were a widow you were probably also poor). But Tabitha became ill and died; we don’t know how or why.

Her body has been prepared for burial and laid out in an upstairs room. The people in her community are so distraught over her death that they send for Peter, the first among the disciples, the rock upon whom Jesus would build his church. They heard that Peter was nearby and hoped that he might be able to do something.

Peter goes to Joppa and is escorted to the room where Tabitha’s body lay; all the grieving widows who have gathered there make a point of showing Peter samples of her handiwork — in their minds, the clothes that she made for them represent who she was far better than her lifeless body ever could.

Peter sends the mourners out of the room and kneels in solitary prayer. He utters just three words: “Tabitha, get up” and, just like that, she arises from the dead. Peter calls the “saints and widows” back in to show them Tabitha is alive again. As word of Tabitha’s resurrection spread throughout Joppa, “many believed in the Lord” — a phrase that, in bible-speak, refers to Gentiles converting to faith in the one God.

As accounts of biblical miracles go, this one is pretty matter-of-fact. I mean there’s no fire from the sky; no feeding of the five thousand; no walking on water; no nets overflowing with fish like we heard about last week.

When you get right down to it, the story — told in just a few verses — is basically this: woman gets sick and dies; apostle shows up and utters three words; woman comes back to life; people are very impressed; the end. The story goes by so fast, in fact, that we might overlook how strange it really is — a woman is actually raised from the dead, for crying out loud! And that doesn’t happen every day.

It is definitely worth noting that the New Testament contains only a handful of resurrections — six of them, to be exact. There is, of course, Jesus’s; and Jesus himself performs three others. And there are only two resurrections that happen without Jesus’s direct involvement — one that will be performed by Paul later in Acts, and this one performed by Peter. My point here is this: dead people don’t generally come back to life — even in the Bible — so, when they do, we should probably stop and take notice.

There has been a tendency throughout the years to think of this as a story that is mostly about Peter, which kind of makes sense. By resurrecting Tabitha, Peter establishes himself as a healer on par with the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha (who also managed to bring people back from the dead); he shows that he is an instrument of God’s power here. By channeling Christ’s miraculous ability to heal, Peter demonstrates that he is, in fact, one of God’s authorized agents in the world.

And so while this story is, at some level, about Peter, it is, first and foremost, about God. It is a story about how God works through people to accomplish great things here on earth, even doing the seemingly unthinkable — bringing life from death — because all things are possible with God.

But what about Tabitha, this woman whose life “was devoted to good works and charity”?

What about this woman who affected lives in Jewish and Gentile societies to such a degree that she was given names in both.

What about this woman who was very likely bilingual and/or bicultural.

What about this woman who is the only one to be called by the title of “disciple”?

What about this woman whose death led to such profound grief among those she left behind?

What about this woman who is the only adult woman to be resurrected by either Jesus or his apostles?

What about this woman we continue to read about two thousand years later?

What could she have possibly done to warrant all of this attention?

She made clothes for poor widows.

Sure, some disciples are remembered for their ability to perform miracles or for the role they played in founding the Christian faith; but some disciples are remembered for toiling away in the backwoods of this world sewing dresses for people who have nothing.

Tabitha’s story reminds us how God often works through God’s people to accomplish great things right here on earth, even doing the seemingly mundane — making clothes for those who have none.

Because true disciples go wherever God needs them to go, and do whatever work God needs them to do. It’s how they respond to that call that defines how they will be known and how they will be remembered.

So, how do you think you’ll be remembered?